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Wendy Roth's research includes looking at the effect of racial classification systems on immigration - photo by Ian Tietjen
Wendy Roth's research includes looking at the effect of racial classification systems on immigration - photo by Ian Tietjen

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 7 | Jul. 6, 2006

Race not a Black and White Issue, says Sociologist

By Lorraine Chan

Do immigrants prefer the melting pot or the mosaic views of assimilation? Perhaps neither, says Asst. Prof. Wendy Roth, who completed her PhD at Harvard University in May and is joining the Dept. of Sociology this month.

“There is a change in the way people regard race and ethnic identities in the U.S., because of the large Latino immigrant population,” says Roth, a native of New York City.

“Many Latinos associate their race with their national or ethnic identities, not their skin color or physical features. When they come to the U.S., they’re not adopting American racial categories. And in doing so, they’re changing the way Americans view race.”

Roth completed her Harvard doctoral research on racial classification systems and how these systems can impact people’s economic and social experiences. For example, one area her study looks at is whether an immigrant’s skin colour affects their job opportunities and social mobility.

She says her work can shed light on the seismic shifts taking place within the U.S. and help to clarify social policies. For example, with 13 per cent of the population, Latinos make up the largest minority group.

“However, we have a model in the U.S. where Latino is not a race and you have to fit into white or black,” says Roth. “By focusing on how racial identities are formed and transformed, one can realize how the classification categories that the government uses are inadequate and inappropriate.

“What’s different about my work,” says Roth, “is that most research focuses just on the immigrants who come to the U.S. My study also includes non-migrants and looks at how immigration is also affecting identities of people in the sending society who never migrate.”

For her research, Roth gained fluency in Spanish and travelled to New York City, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. She studied how a pan-Latino identity is being forged within the U.S. and is also being transmitted back to immigrants’ home countries.

“Television shows have a very strong influence,” says Roth. “These shows are produced in the U.S., but rather than asserting, say a Dominican identity, they express a Latino identity, emphasizing aspects of different Latino cultures that are common. They do this to broaden their markets, but it also reinforces a pan-Latino identity.”

Prof. Mary Waters, who teaches at the Harvard Dept. of Sociology, was Roth’s PhD advisor. Waters lauds Roth’s skills and talent in coming up with original theories and backing them up with advanced analysis of qualitative data that spans three countries.

“Wendy is really a remarkable person,” says Waters. “She’s a big thinker and a very talented researcher. She produced a fantastic piece of work that’s cutting edge.”

Roth says it was an easy decision to come to Vancouver. “I loved UBC the first time I came to visit. I was also really impressed by the productivity and the number of publications coming out of the Sociology Department because that’s what I want for myself, to focus on both research and teaching.”

Roth says she’s eager to do a comparative study between Canada and the U.S. on how immigration alters concepts of race and identity within sending and receiving societies.

“Vancouver is so culturally diverse and close to the border, it would be the perfect location for that.”

Other reasons Roth gives for being excited about her move to Vancouver are outdoor sports and traveling. “I definitely plan on doing some kayaking.”

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Wendy Roth

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology

From: Harvard University

Originally from: New York City

Education: PhD, Harvard University
MPhil, Oxford University
BA, Yale University

What is the major issue in your field?

Transnationalism, which means immigrants’ lives and identity aren’t contained within the state.

What can you do at UBC?

Comparative research on immigration to Canada and to the U.S.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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